Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sexual Harassment – Changing the System II


[This post is Part II of an expanded version of my World View column in NATURE, Change the System to Halt Harassment from 08 February 2016. Universities and their senior staff must do more to deter, detect and punish all forms of inappropriate behavior – JTS]

This series discusses what can be done by people with power to change the system and begin to eliminate sexual harassment from our community. Part I discussed the role of senior academics and department chairs. Here, I focus on university administrators and leaders of our professional organizations, but I also want to make sure that anyone facing sexual harassment knows that help is out there. Please talk to someone you trust and rest assured that you are not alone. 

University Administrators

Every university needs an office where students/postodcs/faculy/staff can talk anonymously about harassment. For lack of a better name, I am going to refer to it as the Office of Good Advice. This office must be fundamentally separate from the Affirmative Action office, University Counsel, or University Police, all of which are responsible for reporting under Title IX. Office of Good Advice should be well known to everyone on campus, it should be staffed with trained professionals, and it should be the first thing that comes up on a web search for “sexual harassment.” Anyone on campus who needs to talk about harassment issues should know which university employees are obligated to report incidents and which can keep reports confidential. 

Every university needs an Office of Good Advice not only because students fear that they might be pressed to make a formal, legally viable report, but also because the staff in the legally responsible offices are often, with no malicious intent, unable to listen objectively and sensitively. Students might later report that they were asked intimidating and inappropriate questions that appeared to undermine the validity of their complaint like, “Were you drinking?” or “Are you unhappy with your grade in his course?” No matter how well-meaning, staff members in offices responsible for upholding the law cannot help but be influenced by that responsibility and by knowing the requirements of an investigation.  


The staff in the Office of Good Advice should, rather, be selected for their sensitivity and ability to listen empathetically. They should never resort to leading, victim-blaming questions, and should be trained about the risks of biasing a report, i.e., the office needs professional staff who would say, “Please tell me more about that.”  They need to be able to protect the identity of those seeking their help, discuss available options for filing complaints, and follow up.

The Second Report

Someone in the Office of Good Advice needs to be responsible for keeping track of multiple complaints about the same harasser. A university, by its very nature, has a fluid student body and postdoc population. One of the ways that serial harassers can continue harassing is by targeting one individual at a time, perhaps in different classes, perhaps years apart, so that the targets never meet each other and never even know about each other. Many people decide to keep the harassment to themselves because it is “my word against his.” Perhaps there were no witnesses, emails, or evidence of any kind. But there is strength in numbers, as the Berkeley case proves. Survivors who did not know each other and had no idea how much their experiences had in common were eventually able to band together. Then it is not just a he said/she said case; rather, it is a he said/she-she-she-she said. In my mind, this made all the difference.

Psychologists remind us that the absolute best predictor of behavior is previous behavior of the same kind, so a second report is a serious indicator of serial behavior. Each incidence of sexual harassment increases the probability of the next, so there is significant risk in waiting for a third or fourth report before taking action. Universities could reduce significantly the damage done by an individual serial harasser by establishing a means of recognizing a second report and acting promptly to eliminate this predatory behavior from campus.

If you had to deal with the predatory behavior of a sexual harasser, would you want to know that others had faced similar situations? Would you want to talk to them about their experiences and how they dealt with this behavior? In the situations I have dealt with, the answer is almost always yes. After all, these young women have reached out to me, a stranger, for help and advice. So if you were contemplating filing a complaint about your harasser, would you want to know if there was a previous report about the same perpetrator? Would it make a difference in your willingness to file the report to learn that you are not the first? Once again, the answer appears to be yes.  

Currently, sexual harassment reports are filed under the name of the complainant, in part to protect the identity of the alleged harasser. One small step in the right direction would be to file the report under the name of said harasser. There is reason to be careful, but the law makes it clear that universities have the flexibility to investigate thoroughly.

For more on this idea, see the post on Information Escrows by Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, which is part of the Fed Up with Sexual Harassment series on the Women In Astronomy Blog.

Presidents/Executive Officers

Professional organizations also have anti-harassment policies. Not all that long ago, I heard from the hierarchy of my own professional organization that they had never had a sexual harassment complaint (that's changed recently). My take on this claim is NOT that there is no sexual harassment taking place at our meetings, but that our policy (the one that I wrote!) is not working effectively. Everyone involved in the process did their best with the information available at the time, but these documents were never meant to be set in stone. They were meant to evolve as new situations arose and new information came to light. How can we change the policy to make it more effective? 

Suppose a situation arises that is not covered by the existing policy, but the evidence is strong enough that everyone involved realizes that the policy needs to be updated. The members of the executive council should see the limitations of the policy in its current form and share the specifics of the individual case with a standing panel of experts – perhaps those that wrote the policy in the first place. The best analogy I can think of is a FISA Court judge who must make an immediate decision for surveillance warrants against foreign spies inside the United States based on the evidence presented. This panel of experts should be in a position to act like the FISA court judge and make a decision quickly, say in a matter of weeks, where all the evidence is evaluated and investigated. In parallel, the current policy can be amended to more easily address future cases. This process is more analogous to the criminal court judge where the wheels of justice turn much more slowly, say months to a year. This would be the timeframe required to ratify and implement an updated policy.

In closing, we should all want to work in an environment where everyone can do their best science. Therefore, since addressing sexual harassment improves the department climate and makes things better for everyone, this is everyone's problem and everyone’s responsibility. Let’s work together to create a community that is free from sexual harassment.

Contributions from Anne Byrnes, Ruth Murray-Clay, Megan Reiter, Mike Simon, and several anonymous sources are greatly appreciated.